This is not the issue of Sports Illustrated I look forward to. (Nor is the swimsuit thing, which covers all the interesting parts.) It is, however, nearer to my heart than any of them, and at the same time, the most tearful one. This is the SI that says its farewell to so many athletes, coaches, men who ran the games, and men and women who left their marks on their sport.
And each year it seems that the grim reaper brings down more than the year before. Just a week or so ago we bade farewell to a pitcher who was more than a pitcher, but a patriot who sacrificed the heart of his career to fight a war. And I recall times I have spent with so many of them, in this case, Bob Feller, who was representing a lotion that helped your hair tell its lie.
I pride the moment when Ernie Harwell and I walked side by side into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. Just the other week I wrote of Don Meredith, and how he simply walked off a driving range for chosen oblivion. Robin Roberts and I crossed paths our final time, serving on a Baseball Hall of Fame veterans committee. Just a year ago, and he is gone.
I’ve long insisted that the worst bowl game I ever saw was played at the old Polo Grounds in New York, Utah State and Baylor in a disaster called the Gotham Bowl. One of Utah State’s tackles was Merlin Olsen, later a Los Angeles Ram and a folksy television star. I never met Ron Santo, Cubs third baseman and later broadcaster, but for years I checked his name on my Hall of Fame ballot. Unhappily, he never made it. It was a cheat.
Few Americans ever realized that John Wooden was a three-time All-American guard at Purdue, and that was alright with him. He left his mark on the men he coached, and through a set of principles which he published and made his trademark. (And I was lucky enough to serve on one of his committees.) The most famous PA announcer of them all, Bob Sheppard, sat with me for a column, and later sent a tape of his work. His elegant voice was like a soothing syrup.
And in Moscow, several years ago, where he served as Spain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympian, had the time to sit for a column. George Steinbrenner, baseball’s ambassador to Gotham, shared time with me in his box at Tampa Bay Downs. Bill Dudley was long past his prime as a Hall of Fame running back, but we shared times over dinner. Bobby Thomson needs no introduction anywhere in America where baseball is spoken, and there was no trace of holyism in the man who hit the home run never to be forgotten.
Sparky Anderson, no elocutionist he, was never too busy for any guy out of town when he managed the Reds or the Tigers. I never knew Don Coryell, but I liked what I heard, and grump a lot that he never made the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Never is there a passing year that SI doesn’t celebrate a lineup of sports people who left more than a score or an imprint on their game, or those people they passed in the execution of duty. Thus, Sports Illustrated takes our hand and we say our farewell to those who gave us time and friendship. And in many cases a subject for another day’s work.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.